Is it silly to admit that my main character, Charlotte, isn’t my favorite character? If you’ve read Desperation, you might know who is. Then again, this short story will give her away. Please allow me to introduce to you a much younger version of Vera, back when she was still the Princess of the Blazing Throne.
This short story takes place roughly 50 years before Desperation.
The Pheonix Meets the Vlk
Every time I thought of those words, they played through my head in my mother’s voice. To her, they were qualities that made up the daughter my father wanted. The daughter she’d intended to have. Once upon a time, it was the daughter I gave them. When I was just Daeva, just someone of potential but still insignificant, I had no choice but to be that. You couldn’t argue with someone who possessed a lesser god. You just did as you were commanded and screamed on the inside.
I refused to be that now.
“You are plotting something,” Gregor, my brother, commented. He sat across from me in the carriage, lounging across the seat as though he lacked a single care for the state of his attire. Which he did.
I picked at the skirts of my gown, threatening to remove one of the many sunstone plates from the fabric. Layered with other red and orange gemstone plates, they resembled feathers in shape and texture. They spanned from my shoulders, down the bodice of my dress, all the way through to the floor of the carriage. Ruby stitching secured them to the vermilion fabric beneath, while charms silenced any sound they could make. Even as I dropped a plate against the others, no sound came.
Part of me wanted to rip the charm off, but even I would grow tired of being a walking jingle cart.
“What led you to that belief?”
Ember eyes met mine, glimmering with an internal heat. Gregor and I were twins. Looking into his eyes was like looking into my own, only his were under thicker, masculine brows. His hair held the same glow, though where his eyes reflected molten earth, his hair was shades of blue, the seed of any hearty fire. The color was natural, but the vertically styled locks were the doing of the royal stylists. Having hair that stood upwards, resembling the fires we relished so much, was the epitome of what the Blazing Throne represented. He hated it, but not as much as he hated the suit.
Sometimes it seemed like we were nesting dolls, perfect little replicas of our father. Except I was a woman. Gregor was not. Gregor was built like a man who could carry the country on his shoulders. Literally. He was broader than the carriage door. But, he was also the heir to the throne, the first child to gain the title of Prince through taking on our grandfather’s Animus. Not that it mattered. He was a man. A gentlemen’s gentlemen. I was a woman. I would never compare.
At least, not in my father’s eyes.
Fire, our element, had many aspects. When it came to the embodiment of those aspects, there were ideal ones for men and women. As a woman, I was the living representation of the feminine aspects of our element. Where fire could be destructive, intense, and inspiring, like my brother, I personified purity, sensuality, and creation.
“You have pulled back. You only do that when you are preparing.”
I sighed. He was right. I had pulled my element back, like hiding my intentions behind a shield. Inside my chest, lava roiled. It almost seemed like verdian spice singeing my stomach, mixed with the pleasing hum of honeyed mead. It was a sensation I’d grown to love in the last few years.
I adjusted the position of my glove in a seemingly idle gesture. “Can I not prepare myself for an evening of forced platitudes and dancing with unacceptable suitors?”
“You are certainly doing that, as am I. Neither of us want to be here.” His tone said he knew there was more. Of course, there was more. My twin knew me so well.
“Father is trying to set us both up tonight,” I said, pointing out what we both knew. “He may not have given us names, but it is always his motive when these events are mandatory. I refuse to allow him to treat us like currency.”
“And what do you intend to do tonight to thwart his efforts?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. It was a look I’d perfected only recently: the withering stare. While Gregor remained unaffected, the experience satisfied my sense of ire.
“Instead of expecting me to come up with all the ways to keep us happily untied to someone we hate, you could offer up some ideas.”
He snorted. He’d never do that around anyone but me.
“The last time we did something I suggested, we ended up killing a duke. I prefer to acquiesce to your ideas. They are effective and rarely see us sentenced to consequences.”
I preened internally. Having an ego was something I wasn’t allowed for most of my life. Now that I could — that I couldn’t be told to behave – Gregor had done his best to encourage me to show it. Still, it was foreign to me.
“I was pondering our usual tactics. As you said, they are effective and subtle.”
“And boring.” The cover of the carriage window to the drivers slid aside, and Aribel poked her head in, her unruly hair frothing about in the wind. “What happened to your sense of fun?”
I tried not to smile at her. If I indulged her mischievous influence, she would never let me live it down. Aribel was my personal guard, assigned to me when I was a child. She, my brother, and his personal guard Nassor, were the bright spots in my life. I couldn’t be more grateful for them.
“Fun is for informal events, where our father and mother will not hear about my behavior,” I reminded. She didn’t need the reminder. She knew.
“Fun is for every occasion. Even a funeral. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.”
“Funerals aren’t meant to be fun,” I chastised.
“Then they aren’t doing them right.”
That made me smile despite myself. Our parents would torch their caskets if they knew we had a party on their passing.
“How far out are we?” I asked.
Aribel glanced to the front of the carriage. “We are pulling through the gates now.”
“Thank you,” I murmured demurely.
“You’re not welcome,” she sassed back at me. The window slid shut. I smiled a little more. She only got sassy like that when I wasn’t brutally honest with her. It wasn’t like I could let out how I felt about this event with any real heat behind it. As soon as I let myself speak like that, I wouldn’t stop.
“Relax, schwesterherz,” Gregor said, the affection in his tone clear with the endearment. “Tonight will go as all the others have.”
“I don’t think I will let it.”
“Do I at least get a clue as to what you are planning?”
“Why must I be planning something?”
He huffed as the carriage came to stop. Rolling forward, he knelt between us and scooped my hands into his. With the low seats, our eyes were nearly level.
“You possess the phoenix of our family. Though you have held him in your heart for years, I cannot help but to see you as you were.” Lifting my thumb, he slid a silvery cuff to my second knuckle. On it, boldly engraved flames were colored in vibrant layers of brass, copper and bronze. It was a hand crafted piece, forged together with four other rings. The Blazing Throne’s Magus Suprema spelled the set, enabling the wearer to communicate through a controlled burst of heat with the other wearers of the rings. They were reserved for the members of Royalty and their assigned personal guard, not for a brother and sister.
“Nassor should be wearing this.”
“And for tonight, you are.” He spun the ring as though he could screw it into place. “If you need me, you know how to call me.”
I watched his fingers for several moments, comparing the ring to the one I wore on my other thumb. His set was thicker and bolder than my own, but both were equally intricate. Upon the death of our grandparents and our inheritance of their Animus, of the lesser gods who ruled our people, we had inherited them. They were what made us Royalty, what made me more than a pretty piece of obedient currency.
The door to the carriage opened, washing us in the exterior lights of Keep Schwentzen. Gregor didn’t show he cared. His attention remained on me, just as I knew it would.
“You do remember that I am older than you, yes?”
He flashed a grin. “By three minutes.”
Gregor rose and stepped from the carriage. I followed, taking his hand when he turned to help me down the precarious steps.
Keep Schewentzen was a fortress that House Crane refused to accept. Their First, Fredrik Crane, had done everything possible to disguise the balustrades and arrow slits behind decorative vines and sprawling flowers. Banners shrouded the lifted portcullis in obscure darkness, turning the entrance into a flowing work of fabric. It was a pompous display of wealth, and it wasn’t flattering.
“If he went to this much trouble to dress the place up, his sister must be a wolpertinger,” Aribel commented as she closed the carriage door behind us.
I had to hide a smile. I’d never met the First’s sister, but I was betting Aribel was not far off.
Curling a hand over Gregor’s forearm, we left the carriage and our guard behind.
The front entrance buzzed with Daeva and Magi as they exited their carriages and stopped to palaver. My brother and I did not, and no one dared to initiate a conversation before we entered the party. At events such as this one, there was an unspoken structure. Royalty, like my brother and I, were at the top, even above the hosts. Below us, our gracious hosts resided in the rankings, then the visiting nobility based on their influence and power. Then, there was everyone else.
Sometimes I wished I was part of the latter.
Everyone else – they were merchants, prominent business owners, and influential figures from local towns. They lived comfortable, if not lavish, lives and suffered none of the restrictions my brother and I were bound by. It seemed impossible.
Despite arriving at the ball in the middle of everyone arriving, there was no waiting to enter the main room. Murmurs of our titles flowed before us, causing people to glance and part when they recognized us, then to dip into formal greetings. Our faces may not have been familiar to so many people, but our features and attire were. Hair like ours, the uniquely deep to vibrant blue ombre, was a symbol of power. Our attire, the sunstone and carnelian gemstones embedded in the fabric of my gown and accenting the buttons of Gregor’s dress coat, were symbols of wealth. And our eyes—they glowed with the inner fire of our Animus. No one beside our parents, my brother and me, had eyes like ours. Even charms couldn’t compare, especially when our power flared and our eyes became more than just glowing embers.
A man stepped forward as we approached the entrance to the main ball room. In a voice that boomed over the music, he announced, “Prince Gregor Hauschild, heir to the Blazing Throne, and Princess Vera Hauschild.”
There was no added second heir to the throne. Unlike my brother, I wasn’t an heir. It was something I envied about other cultures. Under the Blazing Throne’s rule, women were subservient to men.
If we had been born to another family, another element, maybe Gregor and I could have stood on equal ground. Air wouldn’t have been so bad. I’d even be willing to be a Vlk. Sure, I would miss my element, but instead I could become something completely new. Something… better.
The music was the only sound in the room, as the dancers and conversation stopped. Eyes landed on us, like a hundred beams of sun focusing on a single point. It was nothing new, or unexpected. Every time we attended a party, there was an unspoken requirement for the attendees to stop and gawk. It didn’t matter if it was at the time we entered, or if it happened when we were spotted later in the evening.
The crowd dipped in a wave, men and women sinking into bows and curtsies. A man broke from the lowered crowds to rush around the groupings of attendees. “Welcome, your royal highness. It is so pleasing that you could attend our summer ball.”
The greeting was for my brother. Gregor didn’t show his irritation, but I knew the exclusionary greeting had called his ire. Despite the way our country thought, my brother was nothing so simple. He saw me as his equal and took every opportunity to remind others that I wasn’t just a woman. I was the vessel of a god.
The man stopped before us. If Marshall Crane wasn’t the host of the party, I wouldn’t have recognized the man. He was unremarkable aside from the black backed House crest of House Crane hanging on a silver chain around his neck. Older, with a slight gut and shorter than my brother and I by several inches, he would have been insignificant if not for his status of Marshall. He may not have had the power to rule, but he was at least wise enough to be appointed leader.
“Marshall Crane,” Gregor intoned. “I am not the only member of Royalty present. It would serve your House well to acknowledge us both with the same respect. The last time Princess Vera was snubbed, her Animus saw fit to raise the main dining hall of House Hoffman.”
I grinned unabashedly with Flint’s amusement, my eyes flaring with the presence of my Animus. Both Flint and I were fond of that memory.
The Marshall’s face paled. He turned to me, bowing too deeply to be a proper formality. “Of course, Princess Vera. Your presence honors us.”
The back of my tongue tingled, a hint of bitterness. His words weren’t entirely a lie. I could guess why. He was honored by the presence of my Animus, but not my presence. Of course.
The me of a decade ago would have let the slight pass.
That wasn’t me now.
“I am just as honored, Marshall.”
The chain of Marshall Crane’s insignia heated. I sensed it, an awareness I’d gained with my Animus taking me as his vessel. A Magi spelled his chain to detect and warn of lies. It was something only weaker Daeva needed, for those of a certain level of power could taste lies, like the bitterness still tainting my tongue.
When my grin deepened, becoming something smug, his neck gained a nice pink tint. He was flustered and probably embarrassed. Good.
Unfortunately, he recovered quickly.
“I hope your journey here was smooth. We recently had the road from Bärenbrunn resurfaced.”
“It was pleasant enough,” my brother answered.
The pleasantries continued between my brother and Marshall Crane as we moved further into the room. Each step gave way to the resuming conversations and movement as dancers returned to their affairs. By the time we reached a tall table to gather around, the room had returned to the state we found it in.
“Good evening, Princess Vera.”
I did not turn at the voice of the man I’d been avoiding for years. Third Malcom Ausmond of House Ausmond had been vying for my hand since I came of age. Decades of rejection seemed to only make him try harder. If my grandmother’s Animus had not chosen me, my father might have given me to him out of desperation. Now that I was Royalty, and not just of the royal family, I was worth more to my father. Third Ausmond was not worthy of being my consort.
“Princess Vera,” he tried again. His voice was a combination of a whining horse and yippie dog. It was fitting knowing he was several inches shorter than me, and that was without the heels I currently wore.
My brother’s gaze flicked to me, paused to take in my expression, then returned to Marshal Crane. I had this, and he knew I’d enjoy it.
Turning to face the man, I was expectedly unimpressed. Shorter than a man of power should be, he’d taken to wearing charms to compensate during the even. They made his hair rise much like my brother’s, and had the orange glimmering like it was alive. Under those charms, I knew his hair was still orange, but it was not because he was powerful. It was a dull, lifeless color that exposed his true lack of outstanding qualities. Perhaps if he were a pleasant gentleman, I could have ignored his weakness. I had more than enough power to ensure that any offspring of mine would be exceptional. But he was not. He was sycophantic, and it vexed me to no end.
“Good evening, Third Ausmond.”
“Princess Vera,” he said, bowing. He enjoyed saying my name far too much. “May I have the honor of the next dance?”
“I thank you for your kind offer, Third Ausmond, but I must decline,” I replied, ensuring my tone stayed even and polite.
“Of course, Your Highness. I understand you have many suitors vying for your hand,” Third Ausmond said, still smiling. Deep inside me, my Animus took notice. Flint did not enjoy my agitation. Neither did I.
“Indeed, Third Ausmond, and you have been among them for some time,” I replied, raising an eyebrow. “Yet, I have rejected you time and time again. It is a wonder that you keep trying.”
“Yes, Your Highness, and I shall continue to be until you see fit to accept my proposal,” Third Ausmond said eagerly.
Was it a male trait to never accept no for an answer? Did he believe something would change my mind after decades of denial?
“I appreciate your persistence, Third Ausmond, but your efforts are in vain,” I replied, dismissing him. I started to turn back to the conversation between my brother and Marshal Crane, only to be stopped. Pretentious little prick.
“Your Highness, I implore you to reconsider. I am a man of means, my House has great standing within the Blazing Throne, and I would make a devoted husband,” Third Ausmond pleaded.
“I have no doubt of your devotion, Third Ausmond, but such considerations are not the only ones that guide my decisions,” I replied coolly.
“What are these other considerations? Perhaps if I knew what you were looking for, I could assure–” Third Ausmond cut himself off as the air around me sparked and heated.
Flint stretched, his power flexing apart from my own. The air around me wavered, the gemstones of my dress gaining a luminescent glow as they warmed against my body. When I spoke, a darker undertone shadowed my words.
“I suggested you find another woman to pursue, Third Ausmond. I will not have you.”
Fingers traced the back of my hand. I glanced back to find Gregor standing closer to me, our hands nearly twined. He was not looking at me, but he was still with me. Supporting.
I loved my twin.
Flint settled, allowing the air and my dress to cool. I gave my brother a grateful nudge and returned my attention to the insistent Third.
“Excuse me, Third Ausmond, I see that I need refreshment. Good evening,” I said politely, gracefully exiting the conversation and walking around him to find something to drink.
Moving about a party as a royal was an art I had learned early in life. One of royal birth never had the option of melting into a crowd, and a royal stood out like a bonfire in a field of torches. We were always noticed, always watched, and always had to be ‘on’.
The drink display was a matter of carefully constructed fountains spilling wine in red streams into a basin at the bottom. It was a main attraction for the party guests, drawing conversation close as guests examined the artful display of mechanics and stonework. Every year they added something new to it, keeping interests fresh, and slowly turning something from art to obscene.
I had no taste for the wine being served. Perhaps it was a privilege of royalty to flag down a member of the staff and have a discrete glass of Ostriv Honey, a bourbon from one of the main cities in Vlk territory, delivered to my hands. It was as expensive as sin and more delicious than anything to ever come out of their empire. Any House in the Blazing Throne’s empire knew to have it on hand if Gregor attended their events. He didn’t prefer the beverage like I did, but claimed he was, because he knew I enjoyed it.
Moments after receiving my glass, I smiled and nodded in greeting at First Hoffman and the group he was with. His foundry was one of three our father had entrusted with dragons. In return, he supplied armor to the Royal Guard and special units. Even my armor was crafted in Hoffman armories.
Conversations came and went. Invitations to dance drifted my way and were politely rejected. My glass was filled and drained three times. The fourth time I found it full, I stared down into the golden liquid. Tonight was… boring. So utterly boring. If something was not fun, it was not worthy of doing. So why was I bothering?
My thumb warmed, the ring glowing against my skin. My head lifted, searching for my brother. I found him leaning on the second floor rails. Two women cornered him against the railing. I did not need more than a glance to tell what they wanted. Our father’s trap had been sprung.
Excusing myself from the group I was with, I made my way to the second floor.
Approaching from behind the two women, I paused a moment to listen in on their conversation.
“—I would love to visit the gardens at Sonnenburg. I hear they are filled with varieties of flora from the Talmhainn lands. Is it true?” one of the women inquired.
She was begging to be courted. How forward of her.
“Yes, they are.”
Gregor did not look at me, but the ring around my finger flared. My poor brother. He would let the conversation steal his sense and invite them to view the gardens if I did not step in. And he knew it.
“Ah, Gregor.” Pushing my way between the women and separating them, I stepped into my brother and carefully stretched up to kiss his cheek. “I have had dreadful proposals to dance tonight. Will you spare my toes and take a turn with me?”
Gregor’s demeanor shifted from pleasant Royal, to sinfully interested. It was a look inappropriate for a party, let alone for his sister. “A dance. Is that all?”
“For now. Perhaps we can renegotiate when the evening is over.” Running a hand down his chest, I adjusted the lapels of his coat.
Ignoring the women completely, Gregor and I moved arm in arm to the stairs, heading for the main floor.
There was no waiting for the next song when we approached the floor. The music simply changed, leaving the dancers already on the floor to look around for the cause of the interruption. We did not wait for them to figure it out. We took to the center of the floor, the crowds clearing before us until the entire room was watching.
The song changed, delicate and dynamic. We faced each other.
“Proper, or…” My brother left the suggestion to hang. I gave him an answering, devilish smile.
The dance was intended to be a choreographed thing with measured steps and precise movements. Our hands were never intended to touch. Charms could be passed too easily from one person to another by touch, but that wasn’t a concern for us, and we intended to put on a show. We executed the dance flawlessly, and then more. Every touch was sensual. Every glance, full intention. Every step, a promise for more. When I glanced away, I found the onlookers were absolutely riveted.
Just as planned.
Until I spun and found another man guiding my turn. If I had been any less trained in dance, I might have stumbled.
Gliding as though I were swirling over ice, I let the stranger finish the twirl. When he pulled me to a stop, his large hands catching my fingers and waist, I opened my mouth to crush the soul of this interrupter.
I had expected a member of a House who’d been too eager to court to me. I did not expect to find a stranger with incredible, mahogany eyes under thick, arching brows, and framed by cheek bones I could cut my lips on. Or, perhaps it was the trimmed beard that made them seem so sharp. It was full, thick, and perfectly accented his lips.
I’d been trained my entire life to find power attractive. Power for our element meant a certain hair color, a burning gaze, and the body of a warrior. This man had the later down, but the rest was so far from my expectations, that I did not understand why my heart did a flip. His hair was dark and luxurious, like black brocade just before it was woven. It was nothing like an embodiment of fire.
If I had seen anything else, anyone else, I would have stopped the dance right there. At minimum, I would have pulled back, stealing my hand from his. But I didn’t. I allowed him to lead us in a twirl away from my brother and around the edge of the dance floor, his hand touching mine. And more.
“It is highly audacious to disrupt a sibling’s dance,” I remarked.
“Perhaps.” The single word was loaded with intention. “And perhaps I thought your grace was wasted on your brother.”
“And it is not wasted on you?”
“Quite the opposite, I assure you.”
Who was this man? I wanted to look down, to search his attire for a family crest or some other hint. Or, to admire the size of him. His shoulders were broad with muscle under my hands. And the suit – it was not a style of our throne. The collar was too high, and too tight around his neck. It had to be suffocating.
“And who is it that I am not wasting my grace on?”
“That would ruin the mood.”
His hands gripped my waist and lifted. I expected it, it was in the choreography that my brother and I would have executed, but I was not ready to go so high. He lifted me like my dress did not triple my weight, my skirts did not make me awkward to balance, and all with the grace of an experienced dancer.
When my feet hit the ground, there was something different between us. Perhaps I’d been dragging my steps before, or more interested in conversing than dancing. I did not care about it now. I let him whisk me across the floor, not caring that couples had begun to join us, and that my brother had vanished in the throng. I let him lead, and gleefully followed.
Joy was not something I experienced often. I reserved those special moments for the safety of privacy, when I could be myself, and Aribel unleashed her terror on the world. I felt it now, like a wave of euphoria as I smiled with genuine joy. Dancing had always been enjoyable, but this was more. This was what I imagined Daeva of Air felt when they glided through clouds. Like my feet barely touched the ground, and I had no care for where we were going.
I did not even realize we’d stopped until the applause for the musicians roared. Just as he had led our steps, I waited for Sir Dancer’s hands to fall before mine dropped to my sides.
“What is your name?” I asked, demanding an answer.
His lips, full and curved just right, pulled into a delightfully lopsided grin.
He turned to leave. A hand rested on his shoulder, the ring that matched the bold ring on my thumb telling me it was my brother even before I saw the rest of him.
“It would behoove you to adhere to my sister’s request,” Gregor rumbled, leaning in close to my mystery dance partner.
“Oh?” He seemed to coo. Turning to my brother, he gave the obligatory bow, but no more. “And what behooves me to do so, your highness?”
“Do you not wish to have my favor?” I asked, sidling closer to my brother so I could see his every reaction.
His eyes flicked down to mine, capturing me like a sphinx snaring a scholar. “Do I not already have it?”
He did not wait for an answer. He just slipped away, dipping his considerable height into the crowd, and vanishing in seconds.
I stared in the direction he had left, waiting to catch a hint of him. I found nothing.
“Brother,” I murmured, my arm pressing into his side. “Do you know who that was?”
“No,” he answered slowly, his words dragging with his thoughts. “But, he is not of our empire.”
“Oh? You could tell that?”
“He is Vlk.”
That gave me pause. I had met Vlk before. They were one of two species-based Daeva. Unlike Mao-Ren, who had a feline form, Vlk were more aligned with wolves. Their true forms loomed over Daeva, with vicious claws and teeth longer than my fingers. I had met several before, but never had I seen one in their Daeva body. They usually wore their fur when in mixed company. It was safer for them, as their hides were nearly impervious to elemental assaults and all but the sharpest of blades.
“How could you tell?” I asked, fighting the urge to turn and search the room with my eyes.
“The eyes. They were not just Daeva.”
“Oh. I had not noticed.”
But I had, and my brother knew it.
Dancing was ruined for me the rest of the evening. I did not mind, but I did mind that my dance partner had vanished. Something about Sir Dancer intrigued me. He was confident, but so unlike anyone else. No one could have gotten away with breaking up my brother and I when we were dancing. Not only would I have maimed them, but Gregor would also have dealt with them with brutal efficiency.
But, Gregor had not. And I had not. There was something about him, a charisma, which called to me. Gregor had recognized it even before I had.
“My father is the Prime Minister to Atlantea,” a child of a girl bragged to my brother. I had been ignoring her presence for some time as my gaze trailed across the crowds. I was not searching for Sir Dancer, but if I happened to see him…
“What did your father do?” My brother asked, humoring her for some unknown reason. “Being sent to Atlantea is a punishment.”
Ah, an insult. That was better.
I glanced at the girl to find her cheeks flushing, the color spreading down her neck in a heated wave. “Your highness, it is an honor for our family to represent our nation in a foreign empire.”
“Atlantea does not allow us to use our element. It is a prison where our people are restricted to experiencing life like a political slave.”
The girl’s mouth opened and closed, gaping like an overheated salamander.
“Go,” I said, my face passive. “Before you degrade the name of your House any further.”
The girl blinked at me, her eyes glimmering with the start of tears. She was gone a moment later, vanishing into the ball.
“Did you even catch the name of her House?”
My brother cracked a grin and shook his head. “That was a conversation I did not need your aid in.”
“You had it anyway.” Shrugging, I turned back to the dancing below. “It seems our father’s attempts to marry us off have been lacking tonight.”
I gave Gregor a sharp glance. “Perhaps?”
“Someone caught your eye.”
I scoffed. “He was merely different.”
“Apparently, that was enough.”
I did not retort. My brother was right about him being different, but he was wrong about our father. He would never choose to tie us to the Vlk. Being tied to another element, and a species based one no less, would only weaken our blood line.
Then again, I was not the heir. Even with an Animus, I could be sacrificed for political gain.
“Is that him?”
I perked up at Gregor’s words, my gaze searching the people below. “Where?”
When Gregor did not immediately answer, I looked to him. He was grinning unabashedly. “Not enough?”
I leveled him with a scowl that had him laughing.
“He’s there,” he said, gesturing toward the far side of the room. I scanned the people and found the tallest man among them. It was him. He was moving through people, pausing for moments as he was called, before moving on. The people knew who he was. I had refrained from asking anyone for his name, and no one had approached to offer information.
I could not ask about him. It would give away my interest, and I did not need to draw attention to it. If it got back to our father that it was more than just a wayward dance, consequences would follow. If this mystery Vlk was of a high enough rank, I could find myself promised to him. If he were not, he could be punished. Unfortunately, our father was concerningly creative.
Sir Dancer turned, and his gaze flicked up, finding mine without searching. His eyes widened a little in surprise. He knew where I’d been standing and hadn’t thought I’d spotted him. Or, he thought I’d lost interest?
I did not react to his gaze. Or, not on the outside. Inside, my stomach flipped and my heart beat faster.
He did not know how I felt. How could he? But it seemed like he knew more than I was giving away when the corner of his mouth lifted. His head jerked slightly to his right. I glanced in that direction, finding the door leading out into the gardens open and neglected.
He turned and started walking. I watched him, locked stock still, as he vanished into the dim outdoor lighting.
The invitation was clear.
Should I take it?
Gregor’s hand slid into mine, drawing my attention to him as he lifted our hands between us. He’d taken the hand with his companion ring on it, which he pointed out by spinning it with a stroke of his finger.
“Do you want to go?”
“Do you want to?”
“We know better than to be lured in.”
“We do,” he confirmed. Despite his words, he still spun his ring round and round my thumb.
“You know I would stop you if this was your situation.”
I sighed and let my gaze trail across his chest. “Perhaps. At least, I would stalk you.”
He adjusted the ring again. “Consider this me stalking you.”
I huffed. “You and I both know if I shouldn’t.”
“If our father sent him, kill him. Your Animus is unpredictable enough that no one would question it.”
It was true. Despite the name my Animus had given me, Flint was far more than just a way to start fires. The effort it took to set him off was minuscule, requiring me to always have a tight hold over my own body. It even took me two dozen beds before I could sleep an entire night without igniting and burning a room to the ground around me.
“And if I kill him, will you come save me?” I teased.
“Always, sister mine.”
I squeezed his hand, then turned for the stairs.
Moving through the ballroom was harder than before. People were obviously liberated from their restraints through the consumption of wine, and they used their freedom from social norms to approach me. I entertained it briefly, but frustration was not something I was good at hiding.
“Princess Vera,” the First of some House cooed at me, his wine sloshing inside his glass. “You should visit our estate when you have freedom from your duties. We have the most delightful vineyard. It is like an escape into Talmhainn gardens, and something you must see.”
Disgust slicked my skin. I had no interest in going to anyone’s home on a personal invitation. “I think my brother might enjoy that more. Shall I bring him? He loves joining me on these invitations.”
The First did not hesitate. “Of course. Your entire family is welcome, Princess.”
The way he said my title was like a snake. Disgusting.
My hand landed on the fountain of wine, and an idea sparked. I had not yet caused any mischief. It was time I did so.
My fingers traced across the piece I touched, and subtly, a charm wove into the art.
“Will you have tea cakes? I do so enjoy them.”
“We will have whatever you want. Name it.”
“Tea cakes, Ostriv Honey, and smoked pork.” I released the charm, letting its effects sink in and spread.
A small cracking sound met my ears. I only heard it because I was listening for it.
“What was that?” I asked, startling away from the elegant feature. The First, thinking I was some sort of damsel, stepped forward, putting himself between me and whatever I was stumbling away from. It was hard not to grin.
I stepped back several steps, seconds before another crack loud enough for everyone to hear signaled a stream of wine bursting from one of the fountains. It arched up, and doused the First in red.
He stumbled back, shocked at the red stain covering his white dress shirt.
I slipped away into the onlooking crowd before I could be drawn into the drama. In a minute, everyone would bathe in wine. I would not be one of them.
Passing through the doorway leading into the gardens was like exiting summer and basking in fall. The urge to heat the world to meet my preference rolled through me, and the air around me warmed before I could catch myself. Flint cooed seductively, his influence making my skin feel uncomfortably tight, and his markings illuminate across my back, shoulders, and face.
“I did not know royalty glowed. Your radiance as we danced seemed like a trick, too good to be true.”
He was here, to my left. And he was looking at me.
I did not entertain my unspoken wishes to look him up and down. Instead, I took a languorous step toward the carved stairs leading down into the gardens.
“I would think it odd if I did not glow. A fire that does not give off light has lost some of its usefulness.”
Footsteps followed, slow like my own, yet somehow closing distance. It was not just his steps I could sense. It was him. Being of fire gave me a sense for heat, or a lack of it. Much like Arctic Daeva, we could pinpoint a fox in a tundra purely because their body temperature contrasted so drastically from the world around them. Sir Dancer was no different. Vlk naturally ran hotter than another Daeva. It made him easier to sense in the cool night air, and to know he was just steps behind me.
“I would think just the opposite, for a fire that isn’t seen in the night can do all sorts of terrible, wonderful things without anyone knowing.”
The garden was vibrant, filled with flowers in full, voluptuous bloom. It seemed overgrown, with blossoms cascading into the paths and dangling from the few trees shading the courtyard. The paved paths leading through the green expanse were lined with lit lanterns, highlighting the pavers and flora in halos of golden light. House Crane had invested far more money than reasonable in this garden, and it had been worth every piece of gold.
“For a Vlk attending a ball hosted by a House of the Blazing Throne, you seem to know very little about what it means to of Fire.”
I turned down one of the paths, my destination in mind.
Something crashed in the distance, and a roar of surprise, fear and outrage erupted from the ballroom. Satisfaction warmed my belly, a smug smile hiding under my skin.
Sir Dancer paused, presumably to glance back at the ruckus. Guards emerged from their stations in the garden to rush toward the noise, passing me as I continued walking. Sir Dancer lingering a second after the guards passed him before he closed the distance between us a moment later.
“That was incredibly convenient timing.”
I turned down a split in the path, weaving my way to the center seating area I’d found during the last ball.
“Year after year, that fountain has grown. Thirty years ago, it was an opulent display of artistic superiority. Today’s display was the tipping point to grotesque. It is good they will be starting over.”
“Are you someone who finds joy in the simple things?”
“No. As you are not.”
“You seem to think you know me so well after only a few words.”
“I think you would find me too threatening if you enjoyed simple. Royalty are anything but simple. The gods that live inside us assure that.”
“I have met other royalty. I would not say they were complex. Primal seems an accurate word.”
Primal indeed. The Animus that ruled us existed before Daeva ever did. They were beyond ancient. Though, something about Sir Dancer’s words had Flint perking up irritably.
We entered the central seating area, finding it better lit than the paths we traversed. Strolling to the center, I stopped and let my senses expand, identifying and focusing on the lights throughout the gardens. Sir Dancer paused behind me, waiting for me to turn.
The lights snuffed out, dousing us in darkness, and causing surprised exclamations to rise in the distance from the ball goers fleeing the chaos inside. The darkness was absolute, leaving only the stars and the barest sliver of the moon to light the night. And my glowing skin. Flint’s presence weighed on me like a cloak, brightening my markings and urging me to do something explosive.
I didn’t. Flint was a god, but I was his vessel. The balance between us agreed upon, and this was nothing that would give him cause to exert his will over me.
Slowly, I turned, knowing Sir Dancer was seeing the phoenix glowing across my skin, rather than the woman who wore it. The only thing that was me he would see were my eyes as they glowed with an inner fire.
“Is this the primal you expect?”
In the darkness, with only my glow to illuminate him, Sir Dancer seemed awe struck. His mahogany eyes were wide, his lips parted, and his brows raised. Being slightly shorter than him, the shadows favored the angles of his face, making him seem softer but no less masculine. He was still beautiful, facial hair and all.
“No,” he breathed. “You are… Radiant. I have never seen something as stunning as you.”
My head tilted slightly as Flint’s influence. It was an interesting and flattering answer. It mollified Flint enough to retreat back into my core, dimming the glow of my skin ever so slightly.
His mouth closed, and the corner tugging up in a mild grin. “You are welcome, Princess.”
My gaze flicked down his body, taking in the suit that fit him so well. It was delicious, and I did not think that often about people. To me, my brother was the most attractive person in my life, and I had absolutely no interest in him sexually. I was not accustomed to finding more than pleasant intrigued in a man. Sir Dancer was… Intriguing.
“I have rarely seen a Vlk in their Daeva skin outside their homeland. How is it you feel comfortable enough to be in such a state at this event?”
“You haven’t seen many Vlk, have you?”
“No. I have not.”
“Lesser Vlk can take minutes to transform, and must wholly transform. For a Prime, this is not a concern.”
He was a Prime? If this night ended without me having his name, I would be able to find him by that alone. Primes were thoroughly documented because of their potential to be chosen by an Animus. There would certainly be several portraits of him in the Vlk archives, along with a complete documentation of his heritage.
“So, Primes galivant around parties in other nations, while lesser loom and flash their fangs?”
“Is that so different from those of Fire?”
“I would not know. I have never been less, and I am rarely around by them.”
“That sounds like a rather isolated life.”
Did he know, or was it speculation?
Still sensing the smoking wicked of the torches I’d smothered, I relighted them, washing the world in light. My markings faded until I was just Vera again.
Sir Dancer’s pupils contracted, his attention focused completely on me. I liked it. Despite so many distractions, he was all mine in this moment.
“Who are you?”
“A simple Vlk.”
“A simple Prime Vlk,” I corrected.
He chuckled. Verily, I was funny.
“Perhaps I understate myself. My apologies, Princess.” Bowing his head, he lifted his right hand and pressed it to his left collar bone. “I am Dominik, Second of House Černý.”
I knew that name, because I knew all the names of Royalty, their spouses, and their family. “You are King Consort Yaris Černý’s brother.”
King Consort Yaris, though not Royalty in the sense that I was, was the male ruler of the Vlk. Vlk had two Animus to their element, and both possessed women in every generation. King Yaris never stood a chance of possessing one, but he held the hearts of both Queens, and was the strongest Vlk to ever challenge the throne. He’d have to be to take it, and to keep it long enough for the Queens to choose him as their mate.
“Did my father send you here? Or my mother?”
He didn’t even flinch at the question. And his answer – I had expected to hear a lie, or at least hesitation. There was absolutely none. Even if I were not strong enough to taste lies, I would know he spoke the truth, and I had every intention of taking advantage of it. “Who sent you?”
“I did. I am here on House business.”
“You are attending a ball as part of House business?”
“Yes. I am building relationships. It’s what any good businessman does to secure advantageous deals.”
“Dragon forged steel tools. My house owns several vandium mines. The rocks they are found in are incredibly hard. We go through steel pickaxes like they are made of wishes. I am seeking a direct supplier rather than entertaining a middleman with the hopes that it will benefit both a House of Fire and my own.”
Vandium was a gemstone unlike most others. When attuned by a Magi, they could hold power as well as a Daeva’s core. They were rare, incredibly expensive, and House Černý nearly had a monopoly on them.”
“Am I done being questioned?” he asked when I paused for too long.
“No,” I said thoughtfully. “Are you serving anyone’s interest besides your own?”
“Yes.” One of his elegant brows rose, questioning me without words. “This is for my House, and for my family. I am merely the instrument.”
“But the deal is all you are after?”
“I could be inspired to divert my attention elsewhere, were the reward fitting enough.”
Was he flirting with me?
“Is it all you are after?” I reiterated, needing a direct answer.
His gaze grew somber, a serious dullness taking over his features. “Yes.”
I wasn’t sure why relief cooled my blood. Or, I did. He wasn’t sent here to woo me into some farce marriage. He was just someone who happened to be here, and who happened to catch my eye. It seemed ridiculous, and uncanny. How could this happen after hundreds of balls, hundreds of chance encounters, and even more intersecting paths?
Unless, it was an act of Dauna. Fate was unpredictable, despite what the seers claimed.
“And, what are you after, Princess?”
The question was leading, and dangerous. “Freedom.”
His head tilted ever so slightly. It was an incredibly canine gesture. “What does a Princess seek freedom from?”
I expected the question to be mocking. It wasn’t. He was genuinely curious. Still, a thousand half-truths came to the tip of my tongue. Somehow, by the will of the gods, the real answer whispered from my lips. “The weight of my crown.”
The weight of the silence was a terrible thing.
He did not let it linger.
His hand lifted and long, elegant fingers stretched above my head. My crown shifted ever so slightly, recentering it on my hair.
“As heavy as it must be, you wear it with a grace that outshines the brightest star in the sky.”
Gooseflesh pebbled my skin. The sensation of him moving my crown was something I would never forget. Even now, my hair tingled like excitement had manifested in my follicles.
“Vera,” my brother’s voice broke the sense of solidarity. Dominik’s gaze lingered on mine, even as he turned, admitting my brother to join us in the central garden.
Gregor glanced between us, his keen gaze noticing everything while he commented on nothing. “The ball is over. It is fitting for us to go before questions arise.”
If I had not been trained to court standards since I was old enough to wear steel soled shoes, I would have given away the disappointment that statement inspired. “Are we exiting through the ball room, or another way?”
“We can take the battlements, unless you wish your dress smelling like cheap wine.”
I wrinkled my nose and nodded. “The battlements.”
I turned to Dominik, meeting his mahogany eyes, and losing myself. It lasted only a second before he bowed, folding over so formally I automatically responded with a curtsy. “Second Černý.”
“Princess Vera,” he returned, rising. “If we should meet again, I would appreciate another moment like this.”
I bowed my head, and risked a proposal I had no control over. “As Dauna wills.”
“As Dauna wills,” he echoed, sending our unspoken promise to the god of fate to decide.
I turned, my hand finding the loop of my brother’s arm. He led me back down the path I’d taken, deviating once a path to stone steps crossed our path.
I left House Crane’s fortress without looking back. If Dominik and I met again, it would be a blessing I would embrace without hesitation. If we did not, I would resign to whatever fate Dauna chose.
Little did I know, Dauna had chosen a path for me, and it led directly to Dominik. That path would send me on a journey to embrace everything I was meant to be.